Kelda Roe from the Univer­sity of Hud­der­s­field’s brand new Her­itage Quay ar­chive cen­tre tells Jon Bauck­ham about an item which can be used to find de­tails of sport­ing an­ces­tors

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Rugby League Play­ers reg­is­ter 1906-07

hile Bri­tons have en­joyed play­ing sport for cen­turies, it wasn’t un­til the Vic­to­rian era that ath­letes be­gan to lay down for­mal rules for their games and turn pro­fes­sional. How­ever, is­sues over pay and am­a­teurism led to a schism within rugby and the cre­ation of a new sport al­to­gether: rugby league.

This month, Kelda Roe from Her­itage Quay tells us about a doc­u­ment cre­ated dur­ing the early years of the game and what it can re­veal about its play­ers.

Which doc­u­ment have you cho­sen?

The 1906-1907 North­ern Union Reg­is­ter of Play­ersy is one of a se­ries that was cre­ated to record which pro­fes­sional rugby league club a player had signed to for a sea­son. This pre­vented play­ers from sign­ing for more than one club at once and en­sured that there were cen­trally held con­tact de­tails for all play­ers.

The vol­umes are di­vided al­pha­bet­i­cally by club, which then list – as a min­i­mum – the play­ers’ names and the date that they were reg­is­tered with a club. Some vol­umes also in­clude de­tails of which club a player was trans­ferred from and the player’s cor­re­spon­dence ad­dress.

What does it re­veal about the lives of our an­ces­tors?

The North­ern Union Reg­is­ters of Play­ers are a use­ful re­source for re­veal­ing and sup­port­ing in­for­ma­tion about the lives of rugby league play­ers in the 20th cen­tury. They can help to nar­row down searches for a rel­a­tive’s geo­graphic lo­ca­tion at a par­tic­u­lar time – if you know that some­one played pro­fes­sional rugby league in the 1920s then there is a very good chance that the Reg­is­ters of Play­ers will hold his de­tails.

The Reg­is­ters of Play­ers are also very im­por­tant from a so­cial and cul­tural his­tory an­gle. They are part of the story of the North­ern Union which was formed on 29 Au­gust 1895 by 22 north­ern rugby clubs fol­low­ing in­creas­ing ten­sions with the Rugby Foot­ball Union. The north­ern rugby teams of the late 19th and early-20th cen­turies tended to have a much larger work­ing class de­mo­graphic among their play­ers com­pared with the largely middle class teams of the south­ern clubs. They there­fore wanted to pay play­ers com­pen­sa­tion (known as bro­ken-time pay­ments) if they missed work be­cause they were play­ing rugby.

The Rugby Foot­ball Union was strictly against any hint of pro­fes­sion­al­ism which ul­ti­mately led to the split in 1895 be­tween union and league codes. Rugby union re­mained of­fi­cially am­a­teur un­til 1995.

The North­ern Union be­gan as a pro­fes­sion­alised ver­sion of rugby union but the new or­gan­i­sa­tion quickly de­vel­oped its own cul­ture and style of play.

The new rugby game and the North­ern Union soon be­came em­bed­ded in north­ern iden­ti­ties, es­pe­cially in in­dus­trial work­ing class ar­eas. The game thrived in the ar­eas now ac­ces­si­ble by the M62 mo­tor­way but its heart­land ex­tended to Hull in the east and Bar­row and Black­pool in the west. Geo­graphic move­ment across th­ese ar­eas is re­flected in n the Reg­is­ters of Play­ers. In the 1906-1907 vol­ume many playe e rs signed to Hud­der­s­field came from lo­cal clubs such as Underbank and Brig­house Rangers; oth­ers came from slightly fur­ther afield in Castle­ford and Leeds.

Some­times a much greater up­heaval is doc­u­mented – JH Wal­ton is shown as leav­ing g Hud­der­s­field to go and play for Merthyr Tyd­fil in Wales.

Over the years the rules un­der­went a num­ber of changes so that to­day’s game of rugby league is very dif­fer­ent in style to rugby union: there are no line-outs,, scrums play only a very mino or role, and the play-the-ball ru ule re­sults in a very fast-paced gam am me.

The game also de­vel­oped in­ter­na­tion­ally, putting down roots in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and south­ern France. This in­ter­na­tional el­e­ment is ev­i­dent in the Reg­is­ters of Play­ers – the 1906-1907 reg­is­ter’s Hud­der­s­field page shows Edgar Wrigley of New Zealand sign­ing to the club. He was one of sev­eral play­ers from the 1907 New Zealand rugby union tour­ing team who chose to sign to an English rugby league team rather than re­turn home. The Rugby Foot­ball League Ar­chive holds a num­ber

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